By James Lewis, USN
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I’m sure you’ve had one of these days at work: you’re an above average worker and your supervisor entrusts you to create a PowerPoint presentation to show your department, by the end of week. You say, “No problem” and take the time to create a nice show with all the latest graphics and everything. It’s finished, and ready to go.
However, on Friday morning, the very day of the presentation, you find out the disk you saved it on either had a virus, bad sectors, or is messed up one way or the other, leaving you unable to retrieve it. Your only backup copy is a fragment of what you’ve finished, because you saved it in the middle of the process, and not at the end. You have no time to redo the job because you have to be at work in twenty minutes. Basically, you’re screwed.
You go to work with a patchy presentation, and try to wing it as you go along. You make yourself, your department, and your supervisor look stupid. You see a pink slip in your future because only idiots do what you did.
That’s similar to what happened to me, except I’m a Navy sailor. I had just left my last duty station with excellent evaluations and the respect of my fellow sailors. The Commanding Officer himself said the command wouldn’t be the same without me! He happily endorsed an evaluation that portrayed me as one of the top five sailors in the command. I was the Man! Well, that’s the way it was on paper.
Because of my efforts, I was selected for Instructor School, one of the Navy’s best. Only top-notch sailors got selected! I was that kind of sailor, so it was only natural for me to attend that kind of school, right?
I would be sitting alongside other top senior sailors, entrusted by the Navy to train our subordinates, superiors, and peers in a variety of lesson topics. Before I attended this grand school though, the Navy awarded me 30 days leave… with pay! After four years as a network administrator, dealing with computer illiterate knuckleheads, and then spending months on an aircraft carrier with people you work and sleep with, you’d better believe I deserved 30 days!
I was very laid back while on leave, even growing a goatee. I thought I looked cool with that goatee! I was a civilian … if only for a little while. Although I tried my best to forget about the Navy, I made sure I got my white working uniform ready for my upcoming school attendance. I’m sure you’ve seen them before. Those are the ones Jack Nickolson was referring to when he was talking to Tom Cruise in the movie A Few Good Men. I’m sure you remember what he said.
I even got my dungarees ready for my permanent duty station following school. That’s what a senior enlisted sailor is supposed to do, right? Be on point at all times? Well, I thought I was.
The first few days of school were very informative, with the instructors teaching some of the basic techniques. The instructors were filled with a contagious energy I hoped one day to attain. My fellow sailors were nervous about standing in front of people, too, so I didn’t feel as bad. The most senior person, a chief—basically, a manager for you civilian types--was our class leader. He was in charge of passing out any important information the class needed to know. On Wednesday afternoon he reminded us of the upcoming inspection Friday morning. Piece of cake. I’d been through a million of ‘em.
I’d already been wearing my inspection uniform, nicely pressed and spotless. It was worn like a senior sailor was supposed to wear it. All I had to do was wash it one more time on Thursday night--those uniforms can get dirty no matter how careful you are--and have it pressed and ready for the morning, just like I’d been doing all week. Easy, right?
By Friday morning, my pants and shirt were already ironed, pressed, and stiffer than a board. They were both neatly positioned on a hanger on the knob of my bedroom door. I had my award ribbons all nice, neat, and orderly. I even ironed my white, polyester belt! And, oh, watch out! You touch the military creases you might get cut!
I was whistling tunes and dancing away, confident I’d pass the inspection with flying colors. It was 6:05a.m and I had to be at school by 6:45. No problem--it only took fifteen minutes to get there. All I had left that needed doing was to touch up my hair and brush my teeth, when I noticed a small wrinkle on my left sleeve. “Hey,” I said, “is that a wrinkle?”
I decided to iron the small wrinkle out, so I turned on the iron, took the shirt off the hanger, and hung it on the end of the ironing board. Meanwhile, the taste in my mouth reminded me I needed some toothpaste, so I retreated to the bathroom and gave my teeth a thorough scrubbing. The inspector was going to be inches from my face to check my shave and haircut, ya know.
I walked out the bathroom five minutes later and into the bedroom. It was 6:10a.m and everything was still fine. I walked … no strolled back into the bedroom, bobbing my head to one of those imaginary tunes only I could hear. My wife was still wrapped up in the sheets, her pretty self knocked out with a goofy grin on her face. Probably was dreaming about me.
The iron was nice and hot, so I grabbed the shirt and flattened it out on its backside to get to the wrinkle. I was looking silly, wearing only a tee shirt, underwear, and black socks. I shook my bony ass in rhythm to my imaginary beat. I knew we would get out early, probably even before lunchtime. I was feeling pretty damn good. When you feel good, it’s all good.
I placed the iron on the wrinkled sleeve and held it for a couple of seconds. I took it off and the wrinkle was nearly gone. Ever the top-notch perfectionist, I wanted it completely gone, so I applied a little more pressure from the iron and waited a couple of seconds longer. I pulled the iron back and…
“Hold up!” I screamed. “What the hell is this white crap on the iron? How did … AAAAAUUUGGHHH!”
In response to my screams, my wife threw the sheets off, jumped up and yelled, “who ... what ... what’s wrong? What happened?”
My mouth was wide open and my eyes were bigger than plates. My whole body was numb. I felt like all the available oxygen I had somehow got forced out of my body in an instant. At the same time, my stomach felt like it was being twisted in knots. I could only take in shallow breaths. My eyes tried to fathom the idiocy of my deed.
My wife had gotten up out of the bed by now and was two feet away questioning me, but my ears couldn’t make out any words. It wasn’t important at that moment because I had just created a whole new buttload of problems for myself.
I had just burned a hole in my only inspection ready shirt. Ain’t this a bitch? I thought.
To a civilian, that might not seem like much; however to the military, the uniform is indicative of our character. Men in formal military uniform signify a professionalism and pride you don’t see in regular clothes. We represent our country, so we must look good at all times. If I couldn’t prepare for an inspection, how would I look in a foreign country?
The hole resembled a plastic burn with crispy, hard edges. It was on the bottom of on my left sleeve, just below the patch of my rank. It was a small burn, but large enough for any senior sailor to notice during an inspection.
My wife was furious because my panicky yells awakened her. Her ranting finally roused me out of my daze.
“How the hell did you do that?” she said. I didn’t respond. My only reaction was to pick up that useless shirt and throw it on the floor, making my wife step further away from my rage. I stood there, stunned, my eyes fixed on the ironing board. My right hand was inches from the heated iron, but the thought of searing pain did not invade my psyche. A lingering question begged for my attention: “How did I do that?” was that question.
Seconds after mumbling to myself, the reason for my problem slowly came to light, but it was yet to be confirmed. I looked at the iron for a second, then picked it up again by the handle. It took seconds for my brain to realize what I had done, but my wife’s bantering beat me to the punch:
“You dumbass, you had the iron turned all the way up? That shirt is polyester!”
For a split second, an even more insane thought--one I am not very proud of--entered my head. I turned and stared at her with the eyes of a crazed man. Luckily, I held the iron away from her. I don’t think she realized how close she came to receiving a crispy insignia on her forehead. Somehow, I restrained the urge to take my rage out on her. Thank god. You don’t want to push a woman like her.
My wife stood there with a whimsical look on her face, rolled her eyes, then retreated to the bathroom. I thank God she did that. I think it was pretty obvious to her that I wasn’t to be talked to or touched at that moment.
After putting the iron down, I caught a glimpse of the time on my watch: it was 6:13a.m. I planned on leaving by 6:15a.m so I could get there early. I would’ve been fine if I had a damn inspection ready uniform on my body, but this idiot didn’t. Not anymore.
I kicked myself in gear and dashed toward my closet. I rummaged through all my military clothes on the hangers but I already knew that I only had one pair of working whites. This was when another question came to light: if I was so top-notch, how come I didn’t make sure I had a backup uniform?
I had extra dungaree pants and shirts, extra boots, white hats, socks, underwear, tee shirts, etc. How come I didn’t take the time to buy another set of whites while on leave? I knew I needed another pair when I took my only pair to the cleaners, but I convinced myself an extra pair would be too expensive at the time. “Aw, I don’t need it,” I told myself. Big mistake.
After about five minutes of throwing my clothes around the closet and cursing at them, I had no choice--I had to wear the Cracker Jacks. You’ve seen ‘em before because Popeye wears them. That goofy looking guy on the Cracker Jack boxes wears them, too … hence the name. They’ve got that useless flap on the back, ya know? They look just as silly on me as they do on those two little cartoon characters. I hate ‘em … although they are good for picking up females in foreign ports.
Fortunately, I had enough smarts left to make sure the jumper--the top part with the flap--was nice, clean, and fitting. Unfortunately, I had to get my award ribbons off the burned shirt, so I hung the jumper up on the top of the closet door and ran to the other shirt. I struggled with the ribbons for a second, then quickly stuck them on my jumper. It took me a couple of tries to get those annoying points on the back of my ribbons to even out, but I finally did it. I donned the jumper and straightened it out with my hands. It fit, thank God.
I wish I could say the same thing about my dress pants.
You see, there’s one thing you need to know about those dress pants: if you haven’t worn them in a while, like, say six months, they have a tendency to shrink. In some cases, the wearer has a tendency to gain weight. In my case, my pants were a size 32; I was a size 34. Of course, with that polyester material, in order to get an accurate fit, you need to go up two sizes. That meant I really needed a size 36. Yup, you guessed it, I was super duper screwed.
My wife had left the bathroom for the living room while I pouted in the closet. She knew it was best to stay away from me. My mood was a mix of anger, frustration, disappointment, and anxiety all at the same time--and time was ticking away. I was supposed to be in my ride blastin’ some hip-hop music on the way to school by now! And what really messed me up was that fact that I had to walk around in some tight pants!
After I took a deep breath, I grabbed the pants off the hanger and rushed out of the closet, doing the one-legged pants dance and cursing while I struggled. And those pants…oh my God! The moment I put one leg in those pants I knew my crown jewels were mincemeat. I pulled the one pant leg up and it immediately tightened around my thigh. I put the other pant leg on and those things were so tight they looked like white leotards with bell-bottoms in the mirror. They definitely restricted my airflow around the waist, too. I’ll tell you another thing, I don’t know what a boa constrictor feels like when they choke their prey to death, but I bet the choke hold those pants had around my waist was pretty damn close. I didn’t even bother zipping my pants up. I had to breathe, ya know.
Fortunately, I had my neckerchief--the piece of black cloth that loops around the neck--already neatly tied up and on a hanger in the closet. I walked as fast as I could back to the closet and grabbed the neckerchief. I looped that bad boy around my neck in seconds.
“Dammit,” I said to myself, “it’s 6:25!” My groin was itching horribly because my sensitive hairs were pushing against my skin. Along with that, my butt felt mashed together. I could’ve cut the pant legs just above the knees and made some damn biker shorts.
I walked to the living room with my legs at a weird angle, like a cowboy who’d just ridden in a rodeo. If I tried to walk like a normal person, the tight grip the pants had around my private area and the friction I created from my thighs rubbing together would’ve created some serious itching…and pain.
My wife had already found my shoes and white hat for me. I kissed her on her forehead and thanked her. She gave me a sweet, sympathetic smile. I had her check my neckerchief and uniform, waiting for the inevitable remark about my “leotards.” She brushed lint off my jumper with her hands, checked for dirt marks, and adjusted my neckerchief. She didn’t say a word. For a second, I thought, Hmm, maybe they don’t look as tight to someone else…
“Is your butt supposed to be sticking out like that? Can you even breathe?” she said, as I walked to the couch to sit. I rolled my eyes and said, “dammit” under my breath. I didn’t respond, realizing it was stupid to think nobody would notice how tight those pants were.
She sat beside me as I put my shoes on, her gentle hand stroking my thigh. I know she was probably thinking, Damn, those pants are tight, but I don’t think it made sense to sink me lower than I already was.
“You think you’re going to get in trouble?” she asked. I could hear the concern in her voice.
“I don’t know,” I sighed, refusing to look her in the eyes. Yeah, I was some top-notch sailor. I was so embarrassed I didn’t even want to look at her. What did she think of her sailor husband now?
I had no time for breakfast, so I kissed my wife goodbye and rushed to the front door as fast as my tight pants would allow. I didn’t worry about tearing them because the material was pretty strong, but I definitely paid the price for wearing them.
It was 6:30a.m by the time I got to my car. My pants were unzipped because there was no way I would’ve been able to sit down otherwise. I had to be careful because white uniforms have mysterious ways of getting dirty in a car. I was forced to sit down slowly, anyway.
If I thought those pants were uncomfortable standing up, they were like vise grips around my waist sitting down. I think my kidneys were screaming, but I had to get the car started and concentrate on getting outta there.
After starting the car and backing up, it didn’t take long before I was on Highway 15 on my way to school. Amid scratching my groin with one hand and trying to steer with the other, I rehearsed in my head what I would say to the inspecting officer. Nothing I could come up with made any sense:
“Sir, I was walking down the stairs from my apartment and my pants snagged on the rail…” Nope, that didn’t sound right.
“Sir, I spilled some coffee on my pant leg and made a huge stain…” Naw, he probably would’ve seen right through that.
“Sir, my dog peed on my pant leg while I was…” No! No! No! Everything sounded so ridiculous. Shoot, what really happened didn’t sound so great either. I finally told myself, “I’ll just tell him what really happened.”
The strange hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach mixed with hunger made me feel sick. As I got closer to the base, my stomach felt the same way it feels when riding a roller coaster, tumbling down with relentless speed on the first drop. My heart pounded against my chest and I swallowed every time I thought of facing my classmates and inspecting officer. My emotions were all out of whack.
“This is so messed up,” I said to myself. “Everyone will laugh at me and think I’m a loser. I can’t believe this happened. Here I am a senior sailor and I didn’t stick to the fundamentals of a freakin’ uniform inspection. I’m hungry as hell, too!”
Before I knew it, the sentry at the front gate was waving me in and I was parked minutes later. It was 6:44. The inspection started at 6:45. Well, I couldn’t sit and worry about my fate there in the car, so I just put on my white hat and got out. I had to face my punishment like a man.
The inspection was on the fourth floor in the passageway. “Man,” I said to myself, “I have to go up four flights of stairs. I hope nobody sees my cowboy walk.” Somehow I mustered the strength to grin at the comedy of this surreal episode. Although I was in trouble, it was pretty funny.
I tried walking up the flight of stairs and adjusting my uniform at the same time, while enduring the struggle between my thigh muscles and butt. I could feel an uncomfortable sensation develop inside my belly, probably induced by the pants’ tightness.
I hope I don’t pee on myself, I thought.
As I ascended the stairs, another horrible thought came to light. If you’ve ever been through any military boot camp, you should already know their philosophy: if one person fails, everyone fails. Well, I knew I was going to fail. Was my whole class going to fail the inspection, too? If so, what would be the consequences?
My hands developed an annoying shake at the thought, so I put them on the rails. Knowing I could fail the entire class really bothered me. I would rather have been kicked out of class than be the cause of the entire class failing the uniform inspection. That thought sucked.
Meanwhile, my stomach growled as I ascended the second flight of stairs. It was as if my belly knew to remind me to stop at a vending machine in the student’s lounge … there on the second floor. I was hungry as hell, but I had to ignore the urge.
I really don’t know why I’m going through all this trouble to adjust my uniform, I thought. I’m in the wrong uniform anyway. I guess I figured since my other uniform was ruined, it was best to have my dress whites on. As I ascended the third flight of stairs, I realized it probably would’ve been best to wear my working whites…messed up shirt and all. At least, my pants would have fit comfortably.
I finally got to the fourth floor. It had felt like an eternity but it only took a minute. Before I opened the door, I took another look at my watch: it was 6:47. I could see part of my class already standing at attention in two rows through the little window in the door. I took a deep breath, brushed myself off one last time, adjusted my white hat and jumper, and tried to look as normal as I could. I then opened the door…
“First row, uncover! Two!” the inspector said in a loud drill instructor voice. The sailors grabbed their white hats and pulled them down to their sides, almost in perfect unison. The inspector walked between the two rows of sailors, carefully checking the haircuts of each sailor in the first row. Luckily, I had a nice fade done by my favorite barber just a few days before. At least I got that part right.
As luck would have it, it was our class leader conducting the inspection in place of the school’s division officer. Our class leader seemed all right from what I had gathered earlier in the week. I exhaled a quiet sigh of relief as I stood against the wall adjacent to the last person in the second row, about five feet away. I decided not to join the rank of sailors for fear I would somehow taint their unity and military perfection, so I stood there next to the door…alone.
I tried to stand at attention, but I had to have my feet at least a foot apart because of the little pricks of pain and itchy sensation I felt when my thighs were together. I swallowed as the inspector completed the first row…and walked my way. I forced myself to put my feet together to stand at attention. I focused my eyes forward and in seconds I caught the scent of cologne invading my nostrils.
“What happened to you, sailor?” were the first words out of his mouth. He was a couple of inches shorter than my 6’ 2” frame, so as I stared forward, my vision focused on his forehead. I noticed a stone-cold look on his face, disguising the pleasant demeanor he had displayed just the day before.
It took me a second to respond. I think I swallowed more spit, a clear indication of someone trying to think of something to say. When I finally spoke, the words first came out garbled. He raised an eyebrow in response to my stuttering. I stopped, took a deep breath, looked him in the eyes, and started over.
“Chief, I did a dumb thing this morning. I was … was, uh, ironing my hole and I put a shirt in it.”
What? I thought to myself, did I just say that? Ironing a hole and put a shirt in it? Man, I couldn’t believe I said that. He chuckled a little and looked away. His chuckling was worse than that stone-faced look he had just a second earlier.
“Stop right there,” he cut in. The chief just looked me up and down, shook his head, and said, “I’ll get to you later.” I felt so stupid and embarrassed. Once he left, I felt the tense muscles in my upper body loosen up as I relaxed my erect stance. I was just glad that man wasn’t in my face anymore, if only for a short while.
By the time he finished with the second row, I started to feel calm. I think at that moment I came to the conclusion that I messed up and there was nothing I could do about it. I mean, was I really going to get kicked out of school for this? Could I really fail the whole class? I was able to tell myself “no” to both questions. For some reason, the thought sounded ludicrous when just minutes earlier it had nearly toppled me over. I was developing an “oh, well” attitude. I realized I made a mistake, so I’d just suffer the consequences. I doubted school expulsion was one of them.
“Class 10220 … dismissed!” I saw my fellow students depart down the passageway, most of them trying to get a glimpse of what the chief would say to me. He paused for a second--possibly to give the students time to walk away so they wouldn’t hear anything--then walked up to me. It was just him and me.
“So,” he said, his voice monotone and even, “you burned a hole in your shirt, huh?” He was standing in front of me, but not as close.
I sighed. “Yes, chief. I can’t even believe I did it. I didn’t have a back up uniform, so I had to come in this.” I was just ready to accept my punishment and get it over with.
He was looking at me all over. “Well,” he said, while tugging at my neckerchief, “your neckerchief is uneven and your jumper is a little wrinkled. Your pants are tight as hell, too. You would’ve failed even if you were being inspected with this uniform.”
I lowered my head. That was definitely the truth. I could’ve at least had this uniform ready as a back up. I didn’t even do that much.
I was ready for him to drop the bomb, but I guess the heavens were shining down on me because chief had other plans.
“You’re pretty lucky because if it were the school’s division officer doing the inspection, he definitely would’ve failed you,” he said. “He had a meeting to go to, so I had to take his place. We’re on a ten-minute break now, so I’ll see you in class after the break. I’ll re-inspect you on Monday, understand?”
Say what? I thought, a re-inspection, on Monday? That was music to my ears!
“Thank you, chief,” I replied with enthusiasm, “I will definitely take care of it by Monday.”
He nodded his head and smiled a little. Damn, that man was cool! For a second the thought of embracing him came to mind. He could’ve reported my transgression to the school’s senior personnel, but he chose not to. I sincerely think since he was a student as well, he didn’t want to be the cause of failing a fellow student. What a guy.
He then walked out the door I was standing next to, and I darted to the bathroom not too far from where I was standing. I don’t know if he realized my pants were unzipped because the jumper concealed my waist, but if he did, I’m sure he understood why.
I struggled for a second in front of the urinal to pull my pants down, scratching myself at the same time. Although I felt like I was extremely lucky to get away Scott-free, I didn’t feel entirely guilt-free. Deep down, I knew I had messed up, and I wanted to make up for it somehow.
So, just before class started after the break, I figured the honorable thing to do was to apologize to my fellow classmates--and shipmates. I stood in front of the class--actually in front of a podium--and apologized. I confessed the whole story to them and told them how sorry I was for letting them down. Some of them responded with chuckles, while others nodded their heads as I spoke. I took the head nodding to mean my apology was accepted, but whatever the case, I felt better afterwards.
After about three-and-a-half hours of lectures while shifting around in my chair, I was set free. It was Friday, and we were all let out of class by 10:30a.m. I still felt embarrassed wearing those tight pants, so I sat in my seat a little longer until the others were out the door. When I finally left the room, chief came out of the instructor’s office and noticed me. He called my name and said, “have a nice weekend” before I left. I smiled at him, then told him the same thing. I felt pretty damn good inside as I descended the stairs.
Man, I can’t believe that was three weeks ago. Here I sit in my car with my graduation certificate in hand, minutes after shaking my instructors’ and classmates’ hands for the last time. It’s funny how that moment three weeks got me to this point: the number one student in the class. My classmates didn’t treat me any differently after that humiliating day; on the contrary, they were very much involved with my success.
After that day, I knew I had to work hard to make up for making such a fool of myself. I bought a new uniform that weekend and made sure all the patches were sewn on and everything pressed to perfection. Of course, the iron had the right level for polyester material.
I had the potential to be good instructor; I remembered that. I decided I wanted to be the best, so I studied religiously for tests, and rehearsed all the topics I picked for presentation with my wife. Everywhere I went--school, work, my night school, or a friend’s house--I was rehearsing out loud.
As a result, I passed every graded presentation and aced all written tests. During the graded presentation, an instructor would sit at the back and record everyone’s presentational techniques. When it was my turn, I showed no fear. The instructor couldn’t find anything wrong with any of my graded presentations, so he could only give me recommendations on how to do something better. The confidence I displayed to the class came across on camera; I knew it before I even saw myself on tape. We were given time limits, and you’d better believe I was within every single one of them. Cockiness? No, just redemption. I needed it.
As for my clothes, I gave those tight pants to the Salvation Army. Now I have two pair of each uniform, including dress blues. I even put ribbons on each uniform so I won’t have to switch them around. I guess my new philosophy now is if you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready. Considering that, you’d best believe that crap won’t ever happen again.